Many modern workplaces have a number of hazards that put at risk the psychological health of workers. We refer to these as psychosocial hazards. As is the case for other workplace hazards and risks, the employer has a duty to identify these and then take action to eliminate, or if this is not reasonably practicable, minimise them.
How much of an issue is poor psychosocial/psychological health?
According to Dr Peta Miller, Special Adviser for Safe Work Australia, “Poor psychological safety costs Australian organisations $6 billion per annum in lost productivity. This is primarily because psychological injuries typically require three times more time off work than other injuries. Additionally, workplaces with poor psychological working conditions accrue 43 per cent more sick days per month.” (June 2018)
In other words: work-related psychological injury is expensive, not just in dollar terms (for employers) but clearly to workers, whose lives can be ruined. And it is likely that since 2018 the costs have increased.
But because we know what causes psychological harm, preventative action can be taken, and it works. The causes of work-related psychological injury include excessive time pressures, unreasonable deadlines and poorly managed organisational change.
What does the law say?
Psychosocial hazards are not specifically addressed in the Victorian OHS Act or the regulations. There isn't even a Compliance Code. However, all hazards and risks are 'covered' under the general duty of care.
Under the Victorian OHS Act (2004) and WHS/OHS Acts around Australia, the employer has a general duty of care: "An employer must, so far as is reasonably practicable, provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health." [s21(1)]. More pointedly: ".. an employer contravenes subsection (1) if the employer fails to... provide or maintain plant or systems of work that are, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe and without risks to health".
Crucially, "health includes psychological health" [s5 Definfitions]
There can be many workplace risk factors. The VTHC Standard lists the most common of these.
Action plan for HSRs
While the causes are known, and therefore preventative actions can be implemented, unlike physical hazards, this is not always straightforward. While some OHS/WHS regulators have produced guidance (see below), as yet we have nothing formal from WorkSafe Victoria. Elected health and safety representatives, however, can and should treat risks to psychological health as they would any other workplace risks.
As with all workplace hazards, psychosocial risk factors should be dealt with in this way:
- Identification and assessment of the hazard/risks: talk to DWG members; check information your employer has such as absence records; we have a tool you can use to identify any risk factors to psychosocial health in your workplace
- Control: discuss measures your employer can take to either eliminate or minimise the risk factors - your employer needs to involve you in the development and implementation of these
- Review and evaluation of any control strategies: it is important that there be ongoing review of measures taken. This needs to be done by your employer in consultation with elected health and safety representatives
Use the rights and powers you have under the OHS Act to both identify the hazards and risks, consult with your DWG, and take the issue to your employer for resolution. You may need to contact your union for advice and assistance, and remember your 'tools' under the Act, including issuing a PIN if necessary.
Because stress is a major factor which can contribute to psychological injury, and many of the risk factors for stress are the same as those discussed here, check the Stress Action Plan for Health and Safety Representatives for more information and advice on what to do.
Because of the high cost to workers and their families, the VTHC has, in consultation with our affiliates, developed a Psychological Health Standard for HSRs to use in the workplace. It will assist in tackling the workplace hazards which threaten workers' psychological well-being, and minimising the risks of psychological injury.
VICTORIAN TRADES HALL COUNCIL APPROVED SAFETY STANDARD
The Victorian Trades Hall Council, as the peak body representing workers in Victoria, is endorsing the following controls as the minimum protections against psychosocial hazards that must be implemented in all Victorian workplaces.
Injuries to psychological health can be prevented, and these standards must be adopted in order to stop the increase of such injuries, and to protect workers from exposure to further risk.
1 Risk management
The employer must, so far as is reasonably practicable, eliminate risks to health and safety associated with psychosocial hazards at the workplace in accordance with this standard.
Where elimination is not reasonably practicable the employer must, so far as is reasonably practicable, minimise the risks to health and safety associated with psychosocial hazards at the workplace.
The employer has a duty to:
- provide and maintain a work environment that is safe and without risks to health and safety associated with psychosocial hazards; and
- provide and maintain systems of work that are safe and without risks to health and safety associated with psychosocial hazards.
- consult with workers and their elected HSRs regarding psychosocial hazards and potential controls
A psychosocial hazard encompasses anything potentially detrimental to the mental, emotional, and social dimensions of what it means to be healthy.
The table below outlines common psychosocial risks that must be addressed, and the aspect of work to which they relate:
|Aspects of Work||Examples of Risk|
3 Hierarchy of Control
- The employer must eliminate, where reasonably practicable, risks to health and safety associated with psychosocial hazards.
If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate these risks, the employer must minimise, so far as is reasonably practicable, these risks by one or more of the following:
- adapting the design, organisation and management of work;
- adapting work environment, conditions or methods;
- promoting supportive and respectful work relationships;
- If after step (b) a risk to health and safety associated with psychosocial hazards remains, the employer must reduce the risk, so far as is reasonably practicable, by the use of information, instruction or training
- An employer may only rely solely or primarily on the use of information, instruction or training to control a psychosocial risk if none of the measures set out in the above hierarchy, alone or in combination, is reasonably practicable.
- There are separate sections on this website on the following workplace hazards that can negatively affect psychosocial health:
- Stress - in this section you will find a page with useful websites and materials from other regulators and other sources, including a set of 'tip sheets' which address wrokplace contributors to work-related stress
- Information, a video of the event, and materials, including a risk survey, from our 2020 OHS Reps Conference: Risks to Psychological Health.
- Bullying and Violence
- Fatigue, impairment and shiftwork
- and other physical and workplace hazards in the HAZARDS section of the website
- SafeWork Australia:
- Mental Health webpage
Work-related psychological health and safety - A systematic approach to meeting your duties provides guidance to anyone who has a WHS (OHS) duty to prevent and manage harm to workers’ psychological health.
Also available is a presentation by Dr Peta Miller discussing the drivers of Safe Work Australia’s new authoritative guidance material for addressing psychological workplace health and safety.
- Beyond the spin on work-related psychological health and safety - Three expert panellists discuss practical steps to managing mental health in Australian workplaces.
Return to work in psychological claims and Return to work: A comparison of psychological and physical injury claims explore factors that influence return to work (RTW) through an analysis of data from the 2013 and 2014 National Return to Work Survey (the Survey).
Return to work in psychological claims, provides an analysis of the Survey results and includes a comparative literature review on RTW after psychological injury.
- Mental Health webpage
- From NSW: In May 2021, the NSW government released a Code of Practice to formally clarify the legal responsibilities businesses have to address hazards in the workplace that have the potential to cause psychological or physical harm. Download the Code of Practice: Managing Psychosocial Hazards at Work
(Last updated June, 2021)